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Recorder letters: St Stephen's school banning the Hijab

PUBLISHED: 12:00 28 January 2018

St Stephen's Primary School in East Ham. Picture: KEN MEARS

St Stephen's Primary School in East Ham. Picture: KEN MEARS

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Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Recorder readers this week.

School was wrong to ban the hijab

Dr Zulfiqar Ali, chairman, Alliance of Muslims Association in Newham, writes:

As chairman of the Alliance of Muslims Associations in Newham, I am extremely concerned at the decision taken by the St Stephen’s School chair of the governors and the headteacher to ban young children from wearing hijabs and fasting during the holy month.

This is a unilateral decision taken by the school which is deplorable and is totally contrary to our values and “free will” to practice our faiths. Newham and indeed the United Kingdom, is a multi-faith society where people of all religions live peacefully, in harmony and have tremendous support and respect for each other. The stance initially taken by school in this regard completely undermined our basic human rights and freedom to practice our religious beliefs. It has been made clear by many parents that this action was taken without any proper consultation and surprised parents who were furious at this decision and the way it has been publicised.

It needs to be remembered that St Stephen’s success, as one of the best schools in country, is due to the commitment of parents, teachers and the children. The fact that they wear hijab or have been fasting has nothing to do with the way the children perform. In fact I could say that the diversity and multi religious nature of the school contributed towards its success and has by no means a hindrance.

The chairman of the governing body and the headteacher should have seen the demographic makeup of school as strength and respected the freedom of choice that parents and children have in their dress code.

This issue has not simply caused concerns among the Muslims in Newham but all faiths as this is an attempt to undermine religious freedom and choice which is at the very heart of our multicultural, multi-racial society. This was an attempt by a few individuals with self-promoting desires to undermine the whole community relation and our fundamental value. The way this has been spread nationally by the headteacher and the chairman of the governing body, clearly demonstrates their ignorance of the responsibility they have towards the children and parents who send their them to their school and have trusted them for preserving their dignity and self-respect and the choice in terms of the school dress code.

Whist the decision of the chairman to resign and the headteacher to reverse the policy, gives parents a sense of relief; it remains a serious concern of the parents and the community at large that the trust of the parents was breached in this manner. There is a need to restore parents’ confidence and frankly the rest of the governing body and the headteacher need to be held accountable for their action. There is a need for an independent enquiry into this matter to get to the bottom of it to establish how such a successful school has ended up in this situation and what the motives of those were responsible for what they did.

Frankly, this is not a tenable position for the headteacher as she has lost the credibility and trust of the people she enjoyed.

Hijab ban was completely wrong

Naila Naidoo, Newham Muslim Women’s Association, writes:

St Stephen’s School in Newham publicised it’s decision to ban under 8s from wearing hijab.

Newham is the most diverse borough in the country with a religious and ethnic make up that should be embraced and cherished.

Covered women are prevalent in every aspect of life. In Newham we see teachers, doctors, retail workers, council members all wearing hijab whilst being productive members of British Society. It is a normal, accepted sight that no one thinks twice about.

In the article (Sian Griffiths and Iram Ramzan, The Times, January 14) the headteacher, Neena Mall states “the school had made the changes to help pupils integrate into modern British society.” As Muslim women we feel astounded that wearing hijab could be seen, by an institution, as a barrier to integration. Particularly considering what we experience every day as residents of the borough, which is covered Muslim women being integral to the fabric of life in our community, and being visible in every profession.

To Muslim women it is common sense to take a look around you and realise that wearing hijab does not prevent participation in society. This seems just another way to dismiss and dehumanise women who cover. Implying they are not happy, they are suppressed, they do not have agency and actually actively taking that agency away from them by speaking on their behalf without consulting them.

We all want our daughters to grow up as happy, productive, confident members of society. Just like any other group of people. That includes being confident in their identity, their faith and their freedom of expression.

At a meeting in Redbridge with council members, a mother spoke about how as a child feeling ashamed and embarrassed to wear hijab because of people’s perceptions, and how although she wanted to wear it, she was put off and didn’t have the confidence to. She said now it feels like we are going backwards to that time. Reducing hijab and the complex reasons why women might wear them to an undefined definition of sexualisation is exactly that. Belittling, ridiculing and dehumanising the women who are wearing it. Making it socially acceptable to attack them due to their choice of clothing.

When singling out Muslim girls for questioning, that in itself is misogynistic, and another way for people to police female dress. Why are similar concerns not being made about Sikh boys? Is Ofsted planning to ask them if covering and growing their hair is their choice? Their reasons for doing so? Is St Stephen’s School going to prevent Sikh boys from wearing turbans?

I can imagine the answer is no, because of the belief that the reasoning for Sikh boys wearing turbans is different. However what evidence base have they used to determine “sexualisation” as the reason why Muslim girls cover? What evidence is there to say that wearing hijab has a bigger impact on integration then wearing a turban?

Maybe more importantly, what is the psychological impact of decisions like these on Muslim girls? If you’re seeing a male counterpart of a different religion being free to express themselves and their faith without question, whereas as a Muslim girl you are questioned, and prevented from the same freedoms, that is no doubt going to effect your psyche, your identity, your feeling of belonging and being accepted.

I have two daughter’s aged nine and 10. One wears hijab to school but not outside school, one doesn’t wear it at all. This is not enforced by me. This is what they have decided to do. It is usual to see one sibling who wears hijab and one who doesn’t, or a child who wears hijab but their mother doesn’t, or a child who wears it one day but not the next. What are these children’s thought processes? Well put yourself into the shoes of a seven-year-old child, their thinking doesn’t go much past “I like it”, “I want to”, or “It looks nice”.

As for the fasting issue, it is normal for even Islamic schools and centres to have restrictions on younger children fasting. But let’s be clear. No one is making eight year olds fast. Ramadan is a time of excitement and joy for Muslims. The normal way families work to include them is to let them do

“half fasts”. They wake up for breakfast, are involved in the excitement of it and then “break their fast” at lunch time, by eating as normal. A simple statement from the school saying we recommend younger children who wish to try fasting do half fasts, may have gone down a lot better.

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